A group of educators, advocates and consultants in Schenectady have come together around the goal of improving the city’s literacy supports for kids from birth to age 8.
The fledgling effort, headed by the Schenectady County Library, is working both to build on existing partnerships and plow new ground, while potentially borrowing from mentorship programs, home visit programs and developmental screening programs in other parts of the state.
The group – in large part facilitated by a pair of consultants and city residents who have been critical of the city school district – has set forth an ambitious goal “to create an education and developmental continuum” to bolster early language development, improve kindergarten readiness and strengthen grade-level reading by the time students complete third grade.
Citing brain development research that shows 85 percent of a child’s neural connections are established in the first three years of life, the group’s leaders are striving to reach the city’s youngest kids and their parents or guardians.
“If those neurons haven’t connected, they won’t be connected,” said Kaela Wallman, the library’s youth services coordinator.
And third grade is a widely-used benchmark for determining if early-grade learning deficits are likely to hold a student back from reaching literacy and other academic targets -- or even graduating from high school.
“It’s such a crucial time,” said library director Karen Bradley.
The library's effort started with a series of “community conversations” that brought together representatives of more than a dozen organizations around the city – including the school district, major early education providers and faith groups – to listen to a series of presentations from leaders of literacy programs in Rochester, Buffalo and New York City.
Those presentations helped the group determine areas of focus: home visits and early language development; developmental screenings and referrals to services; transition to kindergarten; and supplemental reading in the school district’s earliest grades.
One of the key focuses will be on bridging the gap between early childcare providers and the district.
“There are two different delivery service systems that need to start talking to each other more,” said Rosalind Kotz, who along with her husband, Scot Felderman, are working as consultants for the library on the project.
The literacy group has established a pair of age-based work groups. One is focused on literacy from birth to 3 years of age, and the other focuses on 4- to 8-year-olds. The work groups are planning focus groups for parents, caregivers, teachers, early childcare providers and other interested parties, to determine what issues they face and what services would help them most.
The school district is helping recruit teachers and families to participate in the work groups, and Kerri Messler, the school district's literacy and English language arts coordinator, is co-chairing the groups' “transition to kindergarten” effort.
The other key in the early stages of the project is to identify families and better connect with all of the people who provide informal childcare to the city’s youngest kids. The organizers hope to engage those families and providers – in some cases aunts, cousins and grandparents providing “kinship care” -- to learn more about their needs and to help them learn how to more effectively develop early language skills.
The plan roughly falls within the framework of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national network of communities that have set about strengthening literacy supports along similar lines but building systems based on local needs. Eight communities in New York have signed on to become part of the campaign's network, including Herkimer and Oneida counties, Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, New York City and Chemung and Cortland counties.
The network communities work to build local solutions that center on three goals: improve school readiness, reduce chronic absence and promote summer learning.
“We didn’t bring in programs from other communities to try and sell this community on them,” Felderman said. “The intent was to show there are programs that have rigor, that have data systems that are being evaluated. It was to spark a conversation about how other communities are dealing with this."
Kotz and Felderman pointed to screenings of incoming kindergartners as an area the district could improve. If the district had more robust data on the literacy strengths and weaknesses of its incoming kindergartners, for example, that information could help the practice of early care educators working with preschoolers.
The library-led effort is in its early stages, and the group’s leaders said they don’t yet know what shape the project will take: whether they will pursue new programs or focus on strengthening partnerships, or both. They said it was possible a single school or neighborhood could serve as a pilot, of sorts.
“We are starting to ask the questions,” Kotz said. “It’s really a learning process, this first phase.”
“It’s a work in progress,” Felderman said.
“But the concept is there,” Kotz added.
Other stories in this series
- How Schenectady first-graders learn to read
- Stay & Play a valuable program for families
- Partnership brings early educators, district together
- City to roll out elementary summer school program
- In Rochester and Providence, cities push literacy
- A look at other New York literacy programs
- Get involved: Child literacy resources